The Searchers (1956)
The Searchers (1956)

Genre: Western Running Time: 1 hr. 59 min.

Release Date: March 13th, 1956 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: John Ford Actors: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Ken Curtis

 


 

“T

he Searchers” is the quintessential Western, filled with sweeping vistas (namely Monument Valley), rugged cowboys, savage Indians, weathered soldiers, shootouts, ambushes, chases, action-packed adventure… and John Wayne. Where it transcends the genre to become not only one of the greatest of all Westerns, but also one of the finest of films in general, is in the superior character development, humor through lighthearted romance and sarcastic dialogue, and poignancy from the pathos of outsiders trying to reclaim, with marked futility, a glimmer of humanity and companionship. The opening song says it all, with melodies of “What drives a man to wander?” and “Ride away,” signifying the difficulties of the acceptance and forgiveness necessary to coexist in a habitually intolerant, barbaric world not designed for the lonesome. In this aspect, it also heralds the coming of stories about dying breeds, including the graphic visualization of “The Wild Bunch,” the melancholy angle of “Monte Walsh,” and the mirthful viewpoint of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

In Texas in 1868, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother’s ranch. It’s been three years since the war ended, but Ethan has been roaming the country and presumably getting involved with lawlessness, not content with the standards of settling down and behaving civilly. Although sibling Aaron Edwards and his wife Martha welcome him into their home, he’s openly disdainful of Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), an adopted, 1/8th Cherokee adolescent who insists on calling Ethan “uncle.” When Reverend Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) notifies the household that Comanche troublemakers might be in the vicinity, Ethan and Martin ride out to locate them. But it turns out to be a murder raid intended to draw the men away from the ranch – and when they turn back the following morning, they discover that the Edwards’ have been slaughtered and their daughters Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Natalie Wood) have been kidnapped.

This initiates a five-year-long search for the girls that results in hostile confrontations, misfortune, and death. Ethan wants to go on alone, but Martin insists on accompanying him. This separates the young man from his true love, Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), the daughter of neighbor Lars (John Qualen). During the lengthy quest, Laurie almost gets married to someone else, Martin accidentally trades a hat for an Indian bride, and Ethan discovers that Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) is the likely candidate for still possessing Debbie. In his crusade of vengeance, Ethan also realizes he no longer wants to bring the now teenaged girl back alive – for his hatred of the Indians and her conversion into such an abomination can’t be tolerated in the idealized family he hungers to restore.

Revenge is a powerful theme in “The Searchers,” causing Ethan to descend down dark paths to redeem a twisted sense of justice. Seasoned Western director John Ford uses an artistic, impactful framing device to denote the broad-shouldered man’s isolation and division, firstly in the opening scene as the character rides onto the ranch, and periodically at several other moments throughout. Shot from inside buildings, an enclosure, and a cave, he casts a black border around a lighted figure that is literally and figuratively stuck on the outside of the company. The film famously ends with a similar shot, again conveying the sense that complete redemption and personal admission to a sympathetic environment is impossible for the hardened antihero.

This commanding symphony of racism, violence, and revelations is brightened by notably waggish quips (“That’ll be the day,” Ethan famously repeats when his pride is challenged), a dusty fistfight governed by the ludicrous concept of gentleman’s rules, and characters such as Charlie (Ken Curtis) and Mose (Hank Worden), both playing comic relief parts that accentuate either stupidity, foolishness, or peculiarities accelerated by duress. This perfect mix of action, drama, tragedy, and comedy designates an enduring filmic recipe for an unforgettable, archetypal adventure. Though it made no impression at the Academy Awards for 1956, “The Searchers” was – and is now considered – a masterpiece to which all other Westerns (and epics alike) are inevitably measured.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10